Monday, January 30, 2017
Friday, January 27, 2017
Hello, and welcome! My name isn’t Scrin, but that doesn’t matter. I read things, say things, and, very rarely, even know things. I’ve created this blog for a class on existentialism; I’ll be posting responses to the class readings and discussions on a weekly basis. Come in, say hi, and explain to me why I don’t know what I’m talking about! This first post discusses Albert Camus’s The Stranger, centering around its lead character (Mersault)’s general lack of affect.
I don’t think it’s quite fair to say that Mersault lives in a world without meaning; as soon as he admits his (inevitable) care for heat or discomfort, as soon as he presumes to do anything at all, he lives in a world with meaning. Even if he doesn’t care whether his mother lives or dies, he still recognizes that there’s a mechanistic difference between the two states. That (admittedly, pedantic) point made, I think it’s fair to say that Mersault places much less value on the items outlined by his perceptual lens than is usual. If to sympathize is to comprehend another’s emotions, and to empathize is to feel them, I empathize with Mersault heavily. Therein lies my self-justifying bias; I want to defend Mersault’s worldview, for it has important similarities (and important differences) to my own.
It might be silly to empathize with the man with no empathy; but, like Mersault, I don’t think anything inherently matters, though I arrived at the point via argument rather than intuition. Repeated interrogation of any value or claim must lead to an arbitrary, unprovable presupposition. It goes something like this:
“Why is Mersault wrong not to grieve over his mother’s death?”
“Because a son ought to grieve for his parents’ death.”
“Why should a son grieve?”
“Because a son should love his parents.”
“Why should a son love his parents?”
“Because they gave him life and raised him.”
“Why does any of that matter?”
“Because of affection and obligation.”
“Why do affection and obligation matter?”
“Because of common decency.”
“Whence arises common decency?”
Which it’s not—very few things, possibly one or none, as I’ll outline in a moment, are self-evident. So, the prescriptive value (the imperative to care about anything at all) that Mersault violates, is, so far as I can tell, arbitrary. All prescription, and, on some level, all description, is arbitrary. Even shooting a man, as Mersault does, or a million people, or the entire human race, is not inherently wrong. But inherence, as I see it, isn’t all that important.
You see, as far as I can tell, nothing inherently has meaning, and that’s okay; in fact, it’s even beautiful. I’ll get into why in a bit; but first, to claim that anything has meaning—or that it doesn’t, for that matter—one needs a definition of meaning. Here’s mine: meaning is value, both in a descriptive and a prescriptive sense. It is the quality that makes some characteristic or piece of information among the nearly infinite ones available in the universe relevant; it is the filter and lens that makes some reading or view of the world possible. Meaning is the difference between a chair and the air around it, or between my two hands, or, to be less physical, between an act of kindness and an act of cruelty—or rather, it is the thing that makes those differences matter. Meaning shapes the nigh-infinite information within reality into comprehensible and valuable shapes; it filters out the majority to create a bounded, simplified, nearly metaphorical model of reality that the human mind can comprehend. My mind, at least (I cannot truly know any other), cannot help but assign meaning at all times; for the only alternative is to receive the unfiltered press of everything at once, a situation that I can’t comprehend even in imagination. With this contextual, contingent definition of meaning in mind, I cannot conceive of inherent meaning.
I am, at least, a solipsist and, at most, a pyrrhonist; that is, I don’t believe that one can be entirely certain of anything but one’s own existence, and I’m not even certain that I know that. I believe that any sort of inherent meaning to life or existence would have to be self-evident, indubitable, demonstrable from utterly unquestionable first principles; and since, so far as I can tell, only the present experience of consciousness can be so demonstrated, I, on a very fundamental level, can’t understand the idea of inherent meaning. Thus, I can’t appeal to the idea of some objective truth to justify adhering to societal norms, upholding a system of morality, eating, breathing, or, really, interacting in any way with a universe that I can’t be completely sure exists. All things save the aforementioned present experience are dubitable (and, thus, not inherent), and among “all things” are all meanings. This may seem dire; yet for all this skepticism, I am not a nihilist.
Because honestly, what does inherence itself matter? It’s entirely possible that the entirety of my experience is a dream. My norms and ideals are arbitrary. So what? I can justify living my life, eating, sleeping, breathing, pursuing ideals, believing in my morality, on sentiment and affect alone. I care about my life, and friends, and family, and, in some abstract way, about humanity writ large; I don’t need to be inherently right in doing so. Yet, because of this, I cannot condemn anyone as inherently wrong. Mersault does not, inherently, deserve death, because no one inherently deserves anything. His existence, however, does conflict with that of those around him—most notably, with the Arab, who he kills for no particular reason at all—and so, after a manner, they are incompatible. I would prefer that he not die, because I like him, and sympathize with him; and yet, I don’t find his death wrong within my own arbitrary moral framework.
Mersault’s fate is tragic, and regrettable, an emergent effect of a world wherein everything is scarce and peoples’ desires, interests, and freedoms mutually interfere. It is wrong, according to some moral framings, right, according to others, tragic, according to mine; but independent of all these projections, it simply is. Whether reading a novel or reading the world, meaning is projected by the observer; like a shadow, assigned meaning throws one’s own characteristics into relief, the familiar seen anew and strange. To perceive, to read, to name and make and comprehend stories, is to make something of the nothing which is everything. It is the fundamental act of being; and to me, at least, it’s beautiful.